HC Deb 04 February 1985 vol 72 cc596-601
2. Mr. Waller

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further responses he has received to the White Paper, "Buses", Cmnd. 9300.

7. Mr. Pike

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further representations he has received concerning the White Paper, "Buses".

15. Mr. Nellist

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what response he has so far received to the White Paper, "Buses".

20. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further representations he has received concerning the White Paper, "Buses".

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I received nearly 8,000 responses to the White Paper and the consultation documents which were issued subsequently.

Mr. Waller

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those who genuinely wish to make a constructive contribution to the creation of a more appropriate framework for buses are becoming increasingly frustrated and irritated by the exaggerated claims and the distortions of those who are opposed to any change whatsoever? Does he agree that, far from abolishing standards, the Bill, with its many clauses, will reinforce them?

Mr. Ridley

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful for what he said. Standards are important and, now that the Bill has been published, the House will have had the chance to see the statutory provisions that we propose to improve standards. Where there has been total deregulation in the long-distance coach industry, standards have improved enormously because operators realise that if they are to attract more customers it is in their interests to provide high standards.

Mr. Pike

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept the serious concern expressed by many people who use public transport and many who run public transport that if the Bill goes forward as published it will be disastrous for off-peak services, rural services and concessionary fares? Will he take into account the views expressed at the seminar held today by Transport 2000?

Mr. Ridley

I beg to differ. The purpose of the Bill is to improve the matters which the hon. Gentleman listed. I assure him that I would not be seeking to legislate to make services worse. I believe he will discover that the effect of the combination of tendering for services, the rural bus grant and the new flexibility which the provisions of the Bill allow will be that rural services will improve very much. The hon. Gentleman ought to be very careful before suggesting otherwise from his rural area of Burnley.

Mr. Nellist

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Bill—a cowboys' charter—with its proposals to end internal cross-subsidisation, taken with the effects of the abolition of the West Midlands county council and other county councils, puts at risk up to 30 per cent. of services in Coventry and the rest of the west midlands? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his vague promises about the protection of pensioners' bus passes fall on stony ground, because it is no good having a bus pass if Sunday, evening and other services do not turn up at the bus stop?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman has gone no further than obtaining a copy of the Bill. He clearly has not read it. If he had, he would know that if off-peak services are not provided by the operator—and I think that in many cases they will be—they can be provided by the local authority, which can put them out to tender in the way described in the Bill. That is also the case with concessionary fares. If those fares end in Coventry, the hon. Gentleman will know who to blame. It will be his own local authority and not me.

Mr. Beith

Regarding the tender proposals, how can a local authority receive realistic tender proposals for a route on which the operator could face competition from another operator who is prepared to take only the profitable part of that route?

Mr. Ridley

It would be a strange competitor who, without subsidy, challenged a subsidised operator on a route which had been genuinely uneconomic and had been put out to tender. The circumstances suggested by the hon. Gentleman seem to me extremely remote. However, if the position outlined by the hon. Gentleman occurred, I suggest that there could be a break clause in the contract and everybody would be pleased to know that part of the route that had been subsidised did not need subsidy, and that would save some money.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

When my right hon. Friend studies the responses to the White Paper, I hope that he will also study the report by Bristol university, which appeared in the papers today and confirmed that the Hereford experiment had been excellent and beneficial to consumers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as a loss-making publicly owned line in a rural area in my constituency can be replaced by a private, unsubsidised service, that shows that there is plenty of scope?

Mr. Ridley

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right, though I have not yet had time to study the Bristol report. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary talked to well over 60 people on the buses in Hereford and found none who had anything but praise for the new system. Their only fear is that the deregulated system might be taken away from them, to their very great disadvantage.

Mr. Holt

Has my right hon. Friend had any responses from, or discussions with, the Bishop of Durham, who is this week addressing a political meeting in Cleveland at which all Conservative and alliance Members have been refused the opportunity to speak?

Mr. Soeaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman talking about buses?

Mr. Holt

That is exactly what my question is about.

Mr. Ridley

The dreadful thing is, Mr. Speaker, that my hon. Friend was talking about buses in connection with the bishop. However, if the bishop is interested, I should be very happy to meet him and to take him through the Bill clause by clause.

Mr. Cowans

Might it not be in the interests of the House, and certainly those of the Secretary of State, if he could substantiate his case—if, indeed, he has one—by publishing all the responses and placing copies of them in the Library, so that we could see all those who are in favour of the proposals, all those who are against and the reasons why? The right hon. Gentleman should have nothing to fear if people support him to the extent that he claims.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that if responses are sent privately to me it would be quite wrong to publish them without first gaining the consent of those who wrote them. Anyone who wishes to publish his response to a consultative document is at liberty to do so himself.

Mr. Tracey

I am sure that most people will welcome the policy of added competition if it follows the example of Hereford, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) and by the article that appeared today in The Times. However, may I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider greater competition for hire cars in the London area?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am acutely aware of the point that he raised. It is a difficult issue, with arguments on both sides, but we can debate it at length in Committee. I do not have a closed mind about it.

Mr. Stott

The Secretary of State must be all too painfully aware of the representations that he has received on the content of the White Paper from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils, the Womens Institute, Rural Voice and the Taxi Drivers Association. If he had any sense he would listen to them instead of dispatching the Under-Secretary of State to travel round the country wining and dining local newspaper editors in order to create propaganda in favour of his Bill.

Mr. Ridley

If the hon. Gentleman had any sense he would listen to the voices of the consumers, to those of the National Consumer Council and to the people on the buses in Hereford. He would also stop taking the side of vested interests and come down on the side of the customer.


Mr. Holt

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Is it directed to questions?

Mr. Holt

Directly, Mr. Speaker. May I apologise to you if I shouted and did not make it clear that the public rally to be addressed next week in Cleveland by the Bishop of Durham is exclusively to do with buses and has nothing to do with religion?

Mr. Speaker

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I queried his question. I am glad that the matter is now straight.

3. Mr. Madden

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what evidence he has for his assertion that safety standards will be improved by implementation of the White Paper, "Buses".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

The provisions in the Transport Bill reflect the Government's determination to maintain and tighten safety standards.

Mr. Madden

Is not the truth of the matter that the claim that deregulation will lead to better safety standards is as bogus as the claim that deregulation will lead to cheaper, better and more efficient transport services? Is it not about time that the Secretary of State, who is generally seen as a walking disaster area for good transport, tore up the Bill and allowed public authorities the proper level of resources to run improving and expanding public transport services?

Mr. Mitchell

Deregulation itself does not affect the safety level. We have never suggested that it would lead to higher safety standards. We have said that we shall put extra resources into ensuring that safety standards are properly maintained even though there may well be more operators than at present. The hon. Gentleman referred to better and cheaper services, and I should point out that our experience of the test areas is that deregulation produces more, better and cheaper services, and is liked by the customer.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Will my hon. Friend confirm that al the last count 60 per cent. of National Bus Company buses had failed the first test? Will he also confirm that Lancashire county council is needlessly worrying many people by publishing figures that will frighten them off the buses? Will he further confirm that many of the representations that he receives are merely in the form of cut-out bits from newspapers that are paid for with £135,000 of ratepayers' money?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend has got the figures slightly wrong. Perhaps I can help her and the House. A total of 60 per cent. of the National Bus Company's buses passed on their admission, but 56 per cent. of the private sector buses passed—slightly less than for the National Bus Company—and 47 per cent. of London Transport buses passed, which is substantially less.

Mr. Strang

Does the Minister understand that his Bill is bound to lead to cowboy operators with clapped out buses driven by part-time non-union drivers racing from stop to stop? Does he agree that that is bound to lead to lower safety?

Mr. Mitchell

The experiment in Hereford and Worcester shows that as soon as unsafe vehicles appear on the road they are put off by Department inspectors. We shall devote adequate resources to ensure that that system continues and is dealt with effectively. The Bill contains powers to deal with racing.

Mr. Gregory

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that under the Bill there will be more safety checks, because 2,300 buses and coaches failed their special inspection test in 1983–84, and at the annual inspection a staggering 21.4 per cent. failed? Will he assure the House that the consumer will have better safety protection?

Mr. Mitchell

We are taking the necessary steps to ensure that adequate resources are available for the task. I have not said that there will be a significant improvement in existing standards, but steps are being taken by most operators to improve the level of passes. There are some unfortunate gaps. A recent chance survey of 5 per cent. of London Transport stock resulted in half the buses being put off the road immediately.

Mr. Stephen Ross

When the Minister visited Herefordshire, did he discuss the many complaints about parking offences, the allegations about wilful damage to coaches and the allegations about coaches operating without proper licences granted by the chief constable? Did he discover why such complaints were not followed up and why prosecutions were not followed through?

Mr. Mitchell

I went to hear the views of the county council, the city council and the users. Their views were clear and emphatic. The county council is well pleased with what it has. The Liberal city council adopts the somewhat illiberal view that it does not like a lot of buses in the city centre. The customers are thoroughly pleased with what they have and do not want to go back to the previous system.

Mr. Roger King

Will my hon. Friend note that some of the buses that we saw in Hereford last week on our recent trip with the independants, were more modern than the equivalent National Bus Company buses? Does he agree that there was strong evidence to suggest that existing safety standards and inspection were biased towards the independants, and not against the National Bus Company, which has been guilty, perhaps, of just as many misdemeanours?

Mr. Mitchell

I travelled on as many bus services as I could and I found better standards in the private sector than on some of the Midland Red buses operating in the town.

Mr. Snape


Mr. Mitchell

If the hon. Gentleman goes there he will see that what I say is so. Moreover, the customers seem to like the softer seats and the greater comfort in the private sector coaches.

Mr. Park

Will the extra resources to which the Minister has referred enable private operators to purchase buses which have the same ease of entrance and exit as public service vehicles?

Mr. Mitchell

The ability of private sector operators to purchase buses and to dispose of them is unaffected by the Bill. The requirement in law already is that buses have to be submitted for tests and that the operator cannot operate without an operator's licence with all its conditions.

Mr. Maclean

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that private operators come to my constituency surgeries urging that the measure be passed? Is he aware that in view of their high standard of excellence and the high standards of private enterprise activity in my constituency, they resent Labour Members referring to them as "cowboys"?

Mr. Mitchell

I note my hon. Friend's point. I am sorry that the word "cowboy" has been coined, because it seems to be applied only to operators starting up new businesses. I should have thought that the House was interested in seeing more people having the chance to start businesses, so creating employment.

Mrs. Dunwoody

If the hon. Gentleman resents the use of the word "cowboys", perhaps he will say how he would describe a Hereford operator who maintained his buses in a lay-by and an operator who had his licence taken away because 47 immediate dangers were found. How will the Department be able to monitor safety standards when he is reducing the number of people involved in examining vehicles and when the number of traffic commissioners is being reduced from three to one?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Lady is wrong to say that we are cutting down on the numbers. The number of faults found in the case of the Hereford operator to whom she referred is an indication that the system is working effectively. [Interruption] Those vehicles were stopped, were identified as being inadequately maintained and were put off the road. That is what the House should want in the interests of safety.